Monday, 17 November 2014

Amnesia: A mad Aussie dash through history, hacking and the CIA

Never has the long shadow of America across the world been so ominous and so ephemeral as it is in the wake of Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations and Wikileaks. Data surveillance and the huge US presence in the tech and internet worlds have contributed to a sense of America as the omnipresent, unseen superpower in a way that no world leading country has ever been before.
This ownership of the web is what lets the US suggest, with no apparent sense of irony, that people like Julian Assange, an Australian citizen, are “traitors”, though what patriotism or loyalty they owe a country they have nothing to do with is unclear.
It is this long shadow that Peter Carey takes to task in his hacker conspiracy thriller Amnesia.
The title refers to Australia’s amnesia when it comes to the 1975 Constitutional Crisis, which saw the elected government sacked from office by the Governor-General after British and American interference and alleged CIA involvement. The novel’s protagonist, dissolute journalist Felix Moore, believes Australia loved America so much after US troops helped to save them from the Japanese navy during World War II, it refuses to really examine the dissolution of the government.
We were naïve, of course. We continued to think of the Americans as our friends and allies. We criticised them, of course. Why not? We loved them, didn’t we? We sang their songs. They had saved us from the Japanese. We sacrificed the lives of our beloved sons in Korea, then Vietnam. It never occurred to us that they would murder our democracy. So when it happened, in plain sight, we forgot it right away.
Allegations after the crisis suggested that members of the government and the Australian Labour Party had close links to the CIA and that the US agency was instrumental in dismissing Prime Minister Gough Whitlam because he opposed Nixon’s bombing of North Vietnam, welcomed Chileans escaping the coup there and threatened to close US military bases in Australia, including Pine Gap.
That base, run partly by the CIA, along with the NSA and the National Reconnaissance Office, was later made famous as a key component of the ECHELON network, which has allegedly been monitoring phone calls, fax, email and other data traffic since the early 70s for the US, UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand – the so-called Five Eyes intelligence alliance.
Whether or not Carey comes down on the side of the CIA theorists, Felix clearly does and his left-leaning politics, combined with his tendency to make up quotes, are what have landed him where we find him at the opening of the novel: in the High Court facing defamation charges.
Supporting him in court is corporate fat cat, probable criminal and, as we later find out, possible spy, Woody Towndes. Woody is an old friend of Felix’s and when he gets kicked out of the family home after losing the case – which required him to burn his books, a directive he follows in his backyard while drunk, inadvertently burning down half his house – it is Woody who comes to his rescue.
Meanwhile, we learn that a hacker genius behind a worm that sprang the doors open on prisons in the US and Australia is one Gabrielle “Gaby” Baillieux, the daughter of another of Felix's old friends, Celine. Woody, who was helping Gaby as well as Felix, has put up bail for Gaby and now wants Felix to write her story, exonerating her of the crime. Felix, however, has other ideas, much coloured by his memories of college crush Celine and a rather dogged hope of getting to the truth – or his idea of it, anyway.
Felix is the very definition of an unreliable narrator, who admits to making up quotes – a massive journalistic no-no – and putting words in the mouths of historical characters when he has no way of knowing what they said or thought. After defying Woody and being kidnapped (on several different occasions, sometimes by Woody, sometimes by supporters of Gaby), abused and bullied into going on with the tale, he spends his whole time in a drunken state of fear – which doesn’t add much to his credibility.
Felix's book is the tale of Gaby and Celine, as told by Felix. Both women give him taped interviews leading to a second half that bounces between Gaby and Celine’s point of view, peppered with episodes of Felix’s increasing misery in captivity. Their stories encompass and echo Australia’s relationship with the US, from Celine’s conception during the Battle of Brisbane, when US and Australian troops clashed on the streets in 1942, to Gaby’s birth on the night that Whitlam is dismissed from office. Celine’s husband is a Labour MP; she is an actress and sometime activist, filling Gaby’s life with politics and eventual acrimony as their views start to diverge.
Both these things are what drive Gaby’s introduction to the early world of hacking, via the mysterious and alluring Frederic Matovic, who shows her the interactive fiction game Zork on a Mac Iix. Gaby is no Girl With A Dragon Tattoo, though: while she may be driven to the web by personal problems, her hacking is far more the product of strong politics than teen rebellion.
Although the novel clearly has something to say about data surveillance and the web, Gaby’s story is also a wonderfully nostalgic tour of the early IT world and that obsessive inquisitiveness that a lot of folks who first played games on floppy discs will remember.
Why she would risk committing such a crime as writing the Angel worm, which opens prison doors, or why there should even be a question that she might have to face an American justice system that still employs the death sentence, are issues Carey both addresses and avoids, dancing around and through them without leaving clear-cut answers.
What we get instead is a mad, frenetic dash through Australian life, history and politics (with no added explanations for international audiences, which fits) and the journey of an early hacker. Amnesia manages to be a comedic Evelyn-Waugh-style story of the media, an astute breakdown of the political relationship between the US and Australia and a conspiracy thriller about hackers all at once, without taking a single breath in between.
Review first published on The Register.

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